Film criticism still matters

Film critics still matter. What has been lost is a genuine sense of cultural criticism and writing. The genuine appreciation and study of a film, any film, has been lost in our current circus of gossip and tabloid fodder. "We need thoughtful and insightful film critics more than ever in this age of sound bites, uninformed and superficial opinions and entertainment 'news' about meaningless trivia such as designer clothes and what actor is seen where and with whom," said Sheila Laffey, Adjunct Professor of Film Studies at Santa Monica College. And she's right. In popular culture, the critic is seen as some kind of snobby know-it -all who will praise a boring, three-hour foreign film with subtitles but scoff at the fun popcorn flick.

Audiences now prefer to scan the internet for loud, mind-blowing trailers or will migrate to a film because Jennifer Lawrence happens to be in it.

In the 1960s, college students worshipped French auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard or American rebels like Nick Cassavetes.

It was hip to read critics like Pauline Kael who wrote lengthy, sometimes wicked critiques of all kinds of films ranging from big American releases to rare documentaries.

Today that's all gone in an age when it's easy to just browse through Netflix or other outlets for a vast selection of films that were unimaginable 50 years ago.

"I yearn for the days of more solid film criticism and enlightening film review programs such as Siskel and Ebert or Ebert Presents," lamented Laffey. "I frankly can’t watch most of the entertainment news for more than a few minutes."

It is a popular fact that what the critics praise might not even be liked by audiences themselves. None of this year's Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards came close to the $1 billion raked in by "Iron Man 3."

The only real blockbuster on the nominees list was "Gravity," which collected around $600 million.

Compare the reviews and you'll see a few critics give a marginal pass to "Iron Man" for being entertaining but heap praise on "Gravity" for its technical innovation and directing.

Yes, it's true, the average moviegoer is not a film school grad or film buff. They could care less about the cinematography, screenplay or nationality of the director.

But genuine film criticism isn't about just liking or hating a movie. A good film critic will make you see things that you might have missed or guide you to other directors, genres and titles you might not have heard of.

One of my favorite film critics, J.Hoberman, recently published an essay titled "Godzilla: Poetry After The A-Bomb," for a new, remastered edition of the original 1954 "Godzilla" on DVD and Blu-Ray.

In the essay, Hoberman explains how "Godzilla" isn't just a monster movie about a giant lizard stomping on Tokyo, but a powerful meditation on how the Japanese felt after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their collective fear generated by atomic bomb tests the United States was carrying out in the Pacific.

Hoberman goes on to explain how scenes where Godzilla rampages through the city as frightened civilians cower in fear were designed to evoke famous images of Hiroshima after the bomb.

It's a good essay to read ahead of the May premiere of the new "Godzilla" movie which might also be a cinematic expression of our own uncertain times.

This is just one example of how good film criticism benefits people who like to watch movies. "In fact, odd as it sounds I occasionally enjoy a good review about a film more than the film itself," said Laffey. "A recent example of this phenomenon is Godfrey Reggio’s "Visitors" which is edgy, innovative, unique and sometimes quite boring but insightful reviews of the film help me appreciate it on deeper levels."

The sad truth is film criticism might not be respected as much as it used to be because the greats have started to pass away.

In 2013, Roger Ebert, possibly the world's most popular and respected film critic, died of cancer. The death of Ebert signaled the passing of a generation that defined film criticism in the 1960s and well into the new millennium.

Ebert had that unique gift of bridging intellectual criticism of cinema with down to earth observations. He would praise a meditative, philosophical film such as Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life" and give a thumbs up to a monster movie like "Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe." Laffey herself grew up watching various incarnations of Ebert's film review TV show as a cinema studies grad student at New York University.

"It was a ritual that I, and many others, truly miss," said Laffey. She also noted that there are some very good critics alive and kicking today.

"Other fine film reviewers are alive and well such as Kevin Turan and Betsy Sharkey with the LA Times and Elvis Mitchell and Manohla Dargis with the NY Times to mention only a few," said Laffey. Before you go to the movies this weekend, take some time to read a few good film critics because it might change your experience at the theater.

As for the remaining movie critics out there, or those looking to break into the business, Laffey put it simple.

"Keep writing, we need you," she said.